Without further ado, I bring you Mr. Mort Castle - the wit, the wisdom, and the words.
DBJ: Mort, you and I share a combined passion for music and horror. Over the years a number of authors have attempted to join these two - Alan Rogers wrote Bone Music, for instance, and brought some of the classic blues men back for an encore --- how does music affect your writing? In other words, can you step back, look at your writing and your career, and see where things might have shifted or taken another track without music, and can you see the places where knowing, playing, and living with music have affected your writing? What are some of the musical influences of your life find them, in particular, to be memorable?
MC: Yeah, the music was serious enough that had there been a hit or two way back when, then that would have been the career. As it was, lots of promises, some television, lots of performing here and there, and an album that kept three folksinging guys--We were THE INNSIDERS!--Yeah, I know: it was the '60s--eating real well for our senior year but shotteth no lightning through the entertainment skies ... Of course, truth is, I was lazy, and did not pursue music as something other than a lark. Hey, the world was young and I was younger, and there was time enough, as Jimi has it, "to see and do everything."
No question, though, that music informs my writing, and I'm not just talking about writing about jazz or opera or what have you; I will never tackle any lengthy piece without having an instrument near at hand. If you're really into language and music, you can pick up certain of my writings and say, "Oh, the cadences here, the triplets, you were playing banjo here and that's what you did with the words, right?" There are sections of "Buckeye Jim in Egypt" that are definitely slide guitar, others where you know the double stops on the mandolin set the rhythm. Somebody once said to me, "'Girl with the Summer Eyes,' that story has sections that remind me of Satie. Perceptive. I was feeling with these simple three and four finger chords on a keyboard with lots of air between 'em. Of course, if that person had said, "Monk" or "Bill Evans," that would have been right, too.
Sure, I can cite all sorts of specific influences. John Coltrane. Eddie Condon. Sonny Red. Art Tatum. Eddie Lang. And I was fortunate, around at the right time, and so I got to meet and sometimes share stages with people like Bukka White, Steve Goodman, Jim Eaves ... One of my first informal guitar teachers was the very kind man and splendid artist Josh White, who in the time we were hanging out and sometimes playing at a coffeehouse called It's Here, showed me how to choke the E chord at the 12th fret and how to get a thumb and three finger roll going.
Music, words, poetry, dance, it's all the same, it's all art, it all swings, and everything influences ... everything.
DBJ: Along with your own writing, you publish, edit, and teach. Your passion for spreading what you've learned to others seems to meet or even at times exceed your dedication to your own work. Is there a particular point or emotion from which this all springs? What is the most memorable teaching experience you've had? Have you taught any up-and-comers that you feel we'll be familiar with over the coming years? Talk to us about teaching writing and how it makes you feel.
MC: As I said, Josh White taught me. The late poet Bill Wantling, I mean, this guy was called the 'poet of his generation,' he was a friend of mine, and he taught me stuff about sitting down and doing it. Others have taught me, though none of these people were ever put in the formal role of teacher: Watch, see, learn ... that was their pedagogical method. Jerry Williamson. Gerald E. Smith. Lucien Stryk.
When you have a lot of good teachers, something gets triggered. It's like "Not only do you get to keep this gift of learning, but you get to pass it on--and it feels good."
And sorry, Dave, but there have been too many moments that have been memorable. Yesterday, Gail Aronson wrote from Knox College, saying, "Have declared my creative writing major and I'm minoring in art history ... off to study in Florence, Italy this September."
And yeah, I've got plenty of "bread on the waters that comes back Fig Newtons" success stories: Marcy Marzuki was my high school student, publishing even then, and last year was an Emmy nominee; Bayo Ojikutu, author of 47th Street Black and Free Burning, he's got the goods. Luis Valadez, earned his MFA in poetry and just finished his stint as co-editor of Naropa University's Bombay Gin; playwright, actor, jazz vocalist Paul Stovall had his first publications when he worked with me at Bloom High School. More than a few people in the writing community have been kind enough to say "thanks for the larnin'" at the front of their books, Gary Frank, Nick Kaufmann, Carol Morrison ... No need dropping names, despite how gratifying it feels.
Yeah, that's how it feels, pal: Gratifying. It's similar, I imagine, to the proud parent thing, except not a one of these people has ever thrown up on my shoes of made me crazy waiting for 'em to come home at night.
DBJ: You have written novels, but the majority of your work- over three hundred and fifty stories - has been short fiction. This has been described by some as a dying art. Magazines are a harder sell these days in genre fiction. As almost a specialist in the short form, what are your perceptions on short fiction in the modern market? I've described short fiction as a snapshot against the feature film of a novel and the slide show of a novella. Do you have a particular perception of the definition of one form contrasted with the others? What makes a story memorable, and forgettable?
MC: Numbers ... Actually, I've written lots of novels, about 30 or so. Only seven have been published. Some of the others were necessary for my learning, and were shelved not long after completion. Some of them could have been or could be published, but I don't want them out there. They don't represent what I think I am capable of quality wise.
Short stories ... well, the number is probably closer to 500 now. I'm no longer concerned with quantity; I'm after quality. In my early days (back in the day ... sigh), I tried to get a story out every week. There were, fortunately, "earn while you learn" men's mags then and editors willing to help you do the learning. I became known as prolific. (I don't think I am. If you publish eight or ten things a year for a lot of years, then, whoo ... PRO-LIFIC!)
Short story, of course, is not a dying art. If the genre magazines (what pro level genre mags are there? Horror, it's Cemetery Dance, period. Mystery, EQMM and HITCHCOCK. A couple of confessions mags... That's all, folks) no longer support it (and they haven't since the death of the pulps), then there are still all those semi-pro magazines that do.
Of course, too many of those semi-pro mags are too often schleppy pubs edited by people who are barely conversant with language, let alone fiction writing. Being the sweetheart I am, I'm not going to name any titles of the magazines that ought to be published by DELUSIONAL PRESS.
But markets for quality stories do exist, although they might not be thought of by the author trying to write "horror" or "science-fiction" or ... Take a look at the list of magazines in the back of BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES, some paying handsomely, some paying little or nothing--but giving real recognition to writers. (Meaning they are not the same as MY FUNNY FAMILY FICTION WEBSITE DOT COM.)
And sorry, I don't like your snapshot analogy at all. A snapshot is "pick up and shoot it," with little thought to selection of details, point of view, focal length, perspective, etc.
For me, the short story is intensity. It is the intensity of John Gardner's "waking dream." In my best stories, I'm able to give you, as Poe has it, the "overwhelming effect."
Note: I say my best, and I'm arrogant enough to place my best alongside any other modern writer's best. And of the 500 or so I've published, I easily have 18 or maybe 20 that I'd call my best.
Yeah, I love novels. Yeah, I admire people like James Ellroy who can be intense for 600 pages.
Memorable? Tell you this, it's not style. You are not conscious of Hemingway's style as you read it, not his best stuff. Instead, he yanks you into a world ... and there gives you sights and sounds and people that become as memorable and lasting in the mind as that frightening dream you had when you were a six year old kid crying out in the night.
From the sublime to the markets (once more): I'm finding plenty of places to publish. So are my friends and my students.
Maybe those who aren't should take a look to determine honestly if they have goods worthy of the market.
(Just for the record, Mort & Company, I don't have any trouble selling short stories either...and the comments on photographs and short stories were more aimed at the narrower plot focus...I should have put it all in perspective)
DBJ: I read another interview of yours recently, and you spoke of the difference between prose writing and writing "visually" for a comic script. This is of particular interest to those of us who have not yet tackled comic book writing. Can you elaborate on this- maybe give an example or two? I see more and more authors having their work translated to graphic novels and comics, but very few of them actually doing the scripts themselves successfully. There are probably obvious reasons for this. Can you give us the Castle version of the Da Vinci Code for scripts?
MC: Okay, there are more than a few script formats, so anyone can pick up on these all over the place.
This is the important thing, and it goes back to the classic rule: Show, don't tell.
Just like Ezra Pound had it, you've got to have the image.
That means you have to be able to see it--and then translate it into words that will enable an artist to see it and render it in ways that will allow others to see it, too.
Tell you, writing a comic is good practice/learning for someone who tends to write pages of coma-inducing exposition.
DBJ: Final, standard Deep Blue Interview question. You have to have a new story / novel idea by tomorrow. You have your choice of transportation to anywhere you want to go, access to a library with all the world's books, or a similar library of the entire world's music. Which do you choose for inspiration - and why?
MC: I go to Takashi Ikemoto, translated by Lucien Stryk, as I have frequently over the past ... well, lots of years:
I do not take your words
merely as words
no, far from it
I listen to what makes
and me listen
And then, renewed in the knowledge of what I am all about, I go to my office (big office--1500 square feet of books and sounds and writing machines) and I write ...
--and then to keep that inspiration flowing, later that evening, my wife Jane and I sit in the gazebo, eating steak, and I realize again that life is a gift and how fortunate I am to be able, on occasion, to present some slices of that gift in words.
Have a great weekend!